The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Here’s another installment featuring Joe Dante’s reviews from his stint as a critic for Film Bulletin circa 1969-1974. Our thanks to Video Watchdog and Tim Lucas for his editorial embellishments!
Grand fun with Vincent Pries eliminating victims via Old Testament curses. Bizarre, well‑made and often clever horror spoof with good prospects for intended market and strong potential for broader situations if imaginatively sold. Rating: GP.
Organ music fills the night. A hooded figure seated at a Wurlitzer, its pink lucite pipes shimmering, rises from the floor. The Phantom of the Opera? No, it’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Vincent Price in his hundredth film. To celebrate the occasion, AIP has concocted a genuinely screwball vehicle which seems destined to take off in the regular horror markets and has tongue‑in‑cheek potential to perform in better situations as well. If imaginatively sold, it might produce surprisingly strong grosses in class markets. Successful horror spoofs are as rare as werewolf tusks, but PHIBES manages to serve up enough style, wit and—yes—even subtlety, along with some pretty horrific horrors, to entertain a broad range of audiences.
Price is the pasty-looking, living corpse of a famed Vaudevillian out to avenge his wife’s death by dispatching her doctors via the ten curses visited upon Pharaoh in the Old Testament. Considering that it’s basically little more than a parade of atrocities, James Whiten and William Goldstein’s screenplay is full of fruitily funny moments and bizarre images. One victim’s head is crushed at a party by a contracting frog’s head mask, another awakens to find vampire bats crawling all over him, and one is chewed up by rabid rats in the cockpit of his plane. Cameo co‑star Terry Thomas has his blood drained and bottled. Especially nice is a brass unicorn which is catapulted into a men’s club from across the street, impaling an unfortunate character to the wall; it has to be unscrewed. (A bystander observes, “I think it’s a left‑hand thread.”) All the while, Price and his shapely aide and dance partner Virginia North look on approvingly.
Soon only Joseph Cotten is left, his teenage son Sean Bury locked to an operating table below a tube of acid. Cotten has six minutes to operate and remove the key, implanted near the boy’s heart, before the acid drips. He makes it, though he doesn’t sew the kid up again. Price escapes into his wife’s secret coffin and embalms himself to lie in state for the sequel, already underway. Hampered only by a slightly pinchpenny atmosphere, director Robert Fuest (WUTHERING HEIGHTS) gets the most out of the weird ’30s‑style sets end Phibes’ offbeat accoutrements, such as a robot band that plays golden oldies like “Darktown Strutters Ball.”
Actually, this British‑made entry commands about as much charm and class as the genre can master, and it constantly surprises with unexpectedly bright moments, such as one in which Price pours a drink into his neck (he operates entirely via electrode and speaks through a Victrola). Vintage period tunes are used on the track for black‑comic counterpoint, most of which will be, alas, hopelessly obscure to the predominately young audiences Phibes will attract. Price scores neatly this time out in a limiting role, supported by a good cast. Hugh Griffith has a bit as a rabbi, Peter Jeffrey is a perplexed inspector, and the various victims meet their unlikely deaths with aplomb.
1971. American International. Movielab Color. 90 minutes. Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Produced by Louis M. Heyward and Roy Dunes. Directed by Robert Fuest.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is currently available from in The Vincent Price Collection from Shout! Factory.